Children’s games on his sixtieth birthday
My friend Ernst and his childhood in Germany
We were both born after the war, a long time ago, and now it was Ernst’s sixtieth birthday and we were visiting him near Hanover. Some guests were due later in the day. Around mid-morning Ernst and I sat alone out on the patio at the back of his house.
“Time for some disinfectant,” Ernst announced. “Disinfectant” for Ernst came in a glass which you drained carefully and slowly, in case he filled it up again quickly. Before we could empty our glasses a small, single-engined plane droned overhead.
“Achtung – Spitfire,” shouted Ernst. With one hand he clung on to his glass and with the other he tried to drag me down under the table to take cover. It was the sort of game I had played in the nineteen-fifties. I looked again at the plane, heading away over the rooftops.
“It’s all right Ernst, it’s a Messerschmitt.”
By now we were safely hidden under the table where no pilot could see us. For a moment we sat there and then I asked Ernst what it was like, growing up in Germany just after the Second World War; and he told me.
He told me about growing up near the border between East and West Germany, looking across at the Russian tanks that were positioned ready to smash their way into West Germany and flatten anything that got in their way.
He told me about the hardships suffered by his parents’ generation and the hard work needed to re-build his country. He also told me about the resistance movements in wartime Germany, brave people who had tried to oppose the Nazi war machine. Then I asked him about his earliest childhood memories and he said that he could remember the first time that he asked questions about his country. Why, he had asked himself, why were Germans so bad?
By now I was in tears. I remembered my own happy childhood and looked at my friend. How could a little boy have to ask himself such things?
What impression of Ernst is given by his use of the word, disinfectant?
Why do you think the writer cried?